Ep 80 – CC Polygamy Pt3 The Stone Rolls Forth

On this episode, we cover the major sprouts of Mormonism which sprang from the fertile religion Nauvoo soil. From the Strangites, to Whiteites, to Josephites, to Brighamites, to Godbeites, and back to Brighamites again, every major faction of Mormonism seems to have a highly polarized stance on polygamy. Politics plays it’s role as laws are passed in attempt to outlaw the twins of barbarism, slavery and polygamy, largely aimed at curtailing the religious overreach of the Mormon theocracy in Utah. This is part 3 in a multi-part series on the history of polygamy.


Opposition to Mormon Polygamy in Utah

Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act

James Strang

Lyman Wight

Whiteite Polygamy

Alpheus Cutler

Joseph Smith III

Saints Herald 1860 archive

Buchanan’s Blunder War of 1857-58

Poland Act of 1874

James A. Garfield Inaugural Address 4 March 1881

Assassination of Garfield, trial of Charles Guiteau

George F. Edmunds

Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act 1882

Grover Cleveland 8 Dec 1885 annual address

John Taylor

Wilford Woodruff

1890 Manifesto—Official Declaration 1

Supreme Court Ruling upholding Edmunds-Tucker Act

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We’re continuing our slow meander through Mormon polygamy, a topic which dozens of historians have solely dedicated their lives to studying. As we examine Mormon polygamy, we can only hit on the high points in these episodes as we rip through more than a century and a half of history spanning thousands of miles and tens of thousands of people. We’ll leave it to the regular historical timeline to dive much deeper into the high points we’re hitting on in these episodes and talk about the people who lived through Mormonism.

For part 3 of our discussion on Mormon polygamy, we’re going to focus particularly on the history of polygamy in Utah during the Brighamite era and other competing factions in other locations leading up to the first manifesto in 1890. We won’t be spending all our time on the Brighamites, but they were particularly prominent in the public eye when it came to laws regarding polygamy, so much of our conversation will focus on Utah polygamy.

Let’s begin with Brigham Young. After Joseph and Hyrum Smiths’ deaths in June of 1844, a bitter succession crisis gripped the Mormons. James Strang emerged with a prophetic claim to the throne and would eventually take nearly half the Mormons with him to Beaver Island and other locations outside Nauvoo. A small contingency of Mormons remained in Illinois eagerly awaiting the maturation of Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph III, who would inherit the familial prophetic mantle. The other half of the unclaimed Mormon population followed the quorum of the Twelve headed by Brigham Young who assumed the office of President over the Brighamite Mormons and subsequently brought them out to the Great Basin of Utah and settled massive swaths of land inhabited only by First-Nationers.

One of the primary points of contention between these competing factions of Mormonism was the argument over polygamy. Mother Emma and the majority of the Mormons remaining in Illinois were viciously opposed to polygamy and most of the scholarship dedicated to proving Joseph never practiced polygamy has come from the Reorganized LDS church. To this day, the reorganized church which has become the Community of Christ has never espoused Joseph’s revelation on polygamy included in the Brighamite D&C 132.

Immediately after Joseph’s death, the uncertainty accompanying the succession crisis was felt by every Mormon. Was it best to follow the great orator Sidney Rigdon who had recently made a resurgence into the elite with Joseph’s selection of him as his vice-presidential candidate? Rigdon was Joseph’s second in command throughout his most charismatic years in Kirtland and he hated polygamy, but he wasn’t garnering as much support as the Quorum of the Twelve. Was it best to go with the majority of the witnesses to the gold plates who followed James Strang along with the final remaining Smith Brother, William Smith? They were also opposed to polygamy, but the only thing designating James Strang as Joseph’s rightful successor was a spurious letter he claimed to have. Strang was still new to the Mormon movement, he hadn’t suffered through everything the rest of the Mormons had, did he really understand the overarching plight of the average Mormon? What about following the Quorum of the Twelve, was that the best option? Many of them were practicing polygamy, and Joseph had dictated in a revelation during the organization of the Quorum in 1835 that they hold the keys to the priesthood in the event the presidency is unable to perform their duties. Was Brigham Young really prophetically inclined enough to be the next charismatic leader of a visionary movement, or was he better as a businessman?

These were the choices every Mormon faced in the few years following the death of the prophet and patriarch of the church. No pressure, it was just their eternal salvation held in the balance pending their choice. Each one claimed to be the one true church, how do you know which one is correct?

Each faction which broke from Nauvoo considered different men to be the divinely inspired and the rightful heir to the charismatic throne left vacant. Each faction had their own justifications for why they were the one true religion while all the other sects of Mormonism were infidels. To talk about so many factions of Mormonism, let’s craft a functional analogy for today’s episode.

Picture, if you will, a small chunk of trees in a small colony in the forest like the quaking aspens near Fish Lake in Utah. Every tree in this colony shares the same root system and comes from the same soil. When one tree dies in the colony, the root system cuts it off and sprouts up replacements. Anytime forest fires encroach on this colony, it seems pleased as the fires merely clear ground of pesky vegetation trying to steal nutrients from the tree colony so it’s able to expand. Some of the clones combine into other trees, others are insufficiently large or become diseased and the root system kills them off to feed the others. Each tree in this colony has the same genetic code, all being clones sprouting off the same root system, but each is slightly different. Their eyes are in different places. Their bark looks different from tree to tree. No two trees have the exact same branching pattern. Some are large and stout, others can barely obtain enough nutrients to grow larger than a twig-sprout. All of them have the same genetic code and come from the same soil, so an outsider would be at pains to distinguish one tree from another, but every tree is unique in some way.

The Mormon movement in Nauvoo prior to the death of the prophet cultivated the perfect soil and root system for dozens of religious factions to sprout which all shared Mormon memes. Every one of the hundreds of Mormonisms which exist today all share this common Nauvoo root system. We’re going to track a few of the major sprouts as they progress through their life cycle and we’ll be focusing on the Memetic marker of polygamy and how its practice played out in each differing iteration of Mormonism.


The first memetic sprout we’re going to discuss was the most prominent and largest sprout coming out of Nauvoo. About 12,000 Mormon ended up following a man named James Strang, many of whom were opposed to Brigham Young’s practice of polygamy. Strang was publicly opposed to polygamy in Nauvoo when he was a member, this put him in the running as a very appealing charismatic successor to those who didn’t believe Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy. Soon after Strang established his HQ on Beaver Island in 1848, he succumbed to the counsel of the recently excommunicated John C. Bennett and other polygamy advocates and made an abrupt shift from publicly decrying polygamy to secretly practicing it. His first wife, Mary Pierce, left him after he took a second wife named Elvira Eliza Field, after which he subsequently married three more women. Those who’d joined Strang for his opposition to polygamy were quickly disenchanted and the membership numbers of Strangite Mormon sprout dwindled for the next half decade until Strang’s public assassination in June 1856, almost 12 years to the day after the Smiths were assassinated in Carthage.

Eventually the Strang movement would largely be absorbed by the reorganization under Joseph III, but a few hundred people would remain loyal to Strang and continue to adhere to his teachings under the banner of Strangite Mormonism. There are still a few Strangite families to this day. When we get into 1844, James Strang will appear in our historical timeline and we’ll continue to follow the progression of the Strangites from there. For our purposes we just need to bear in mind that polygamy was a hotly disputed issue which divided more than just the Brighamite and RLDS sprouts. Polygamy was a topic which sewed divisions within numerous Mormon sects, Strangite included.


A very small and geographically isolated sprout of Mormonism cropped up under Lyman Wight’s supervision. Wight was a diehard faithful follower of Joseph Smith. He’d been designated a General of the Army of Israel during the 1838 Mormon war in Missouri and took the office of apostle in place of Captain Fearnaught David W. Patten after his death in the battle of Crooked River. Prior to Joseph’s death, in a meeting of the Council of Fifty, Joseph issued a directive to Lyman Wight to find a place of refuge for the saints in the territory of Texas. After Joseph’s death, Lyman Wight and Brigham Young didn’t necessarily see eye to eye in some ways and they had a falling out resulting in Lyman Wight’s excommunication in 1848.

Lyman Wight’s sprout of Mormonism came to be known colloquially as the Whitites and they built the first temple to be constructed post-Nauvoo in Zodiac, Texas, where they practiced sealings, ordinations, washing and anointings, and celestial adoptions. The Whiteites practiced polygamy and Lyman Wight himself had three wives, Jane Margaret Ballantyne, Mary Hawley, and Mary Ann Hobart. For a very brief time, the last remaining living Smith brother, William, led the Whitites in Texas, and Lyman served as his councilor. After Lyman Wight’s death, the Whitites were largely absorbed by the Reorganization and led by Joseph’s son, Joseph III.


Another small sprout to discuss is the Cutlerite movement. Alpheus Cutler had joined the church in 1833 and stayed with Joseph Smith through thick and thin. In Nauvoo, Cutler was inducted into the High Council, Quorum of the Anointed, Council of Fifty and was the 6th person ever to receive his second anointing, which happened a week before Brigham Young received his. LDS records indicate that Cutler took Luna Rockwell, Margaret Carr, Abigail Carr, Sally Cox, Disey McCall, and Henrietta Miller as wives, sealed to him in 1846. Cutler went on to establish Winter Quarters in Nebraska, the landing pad for Brighamite Mormons before they began their trek across the plains to Utah. Cutler and Brigham had a falling out and Cutler subsequently formed his own Cutlerite church in Manti, Fremont Co., Iowa.

Two of Cutler’s daughters ended up marrying Heber C. Kimball, but were abandoned as Kimball was notoriously negligent with most of his wives. In response to this, Cutler decided polygamy wasn’t a divine command and cut ties with his multiple wives and remained with his original wife, Lois, until his death in 1864. The Cutlerite sprout of Mormonism remains a church today with around a dozen adherents. The consensus among them is largely that Alpheus Cutler and Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy and that it was merely a later fabrication by Brigham Young. After Cutler’s death, the Cutlerites followed a revelation that they would build the temple Joseph and Sidney Rigdon had dedicated in Jackson County, Missouri, and the migrated the Cutlerite headquarters to Independence. This happened while the reorganization was in progress and the vast majority of Cutlerites fell away during the migration and followed Joseph III into the reorganization. This sprout spawned another breakoff faction which died and the mainstream Cutlerite sect was essentially snuffed out by the larger RLDS church and only survives as a withered twig sticking out of the Mormon heritage soil, led today by a man named Vernon Whiting.

The Cutlerites, Whitites, and the Strangites comprise most of the major sprouts descended from Joseph’s Mormonism in Nauvoo. There are dozens of other sprouts we could discuss, but we’ll forego doing so at this time in lieu of discussing the two largest branches which still exist today, the Utah-based Brighamite LDS church and the Josephite Community of Christ, formerly known as the RLDS.

Let’s begin this part of the conversation with the public perception of polygamy in Nauvoo prior to the departure of the Brighamite Mormons beginning in 1846. With how publicly it’s understood that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy today, that’s only come after a century of scholarship on his life. He was able to keep free-love and polygamy so deep underground that there were people in the trusted elite who thought he wasn’t practicing polygamy, or was even opposed to it and defended his name. Joseph’s polygamy was so tightly under wraps that his own son, Joseph III, didn’t know his dad was a polygamist, even when some of Joseph’s wives were living in the same house as the young Smith boy.

Brigham continued practicing polygamy with an air of secrecy until he was certain the Saints wouldn’t be bothered in Utah. After Joseph’s death, Brigham and Heber C. Kimball took most of Joseph’s wives for themselves, adding to their already sizeable harem, but keeping in line with the biblical Levitical law of passing wives to brothers, albeit brothers in the covenant.

Finally, in 1852, Brigham went full-force into public practice and widely published in Utah periodicals the 1843 revelation from Joseph Smith declaring polygamy a necessity for anyone to attain the Mormon celestial heaven. From 1852 to the end of the 1800s, the Mormon elite no longer were forced to keep polygamy a secret and it was widely publicized that the Mormons were practicing polygamy in their Utah stronghold. However, Brigham Young openly announcing that polygamy was to be practiced openly, merely confirmed what most of the country knew about Mormons already.

Vicksburg Daily Whig 1 Jan 1852

“You will not think me gifted with ubiquity when I tell you, that forty days since I was in the City of the Salt Lake. As you have probably learned by the papers, the Mormon leaders, and people instigated by them, became so violent in denunciation of the United States Government and its officers, and so determined in resistance of the law, that a longer stay among these fanatical wretches was thought incompatible with the dignity of Government agents, or the self-respect of loyal citizens of the United States.

Socially and morally, the Mormons are the most degraded people on earth. Polygamy, adultery, incest and other crimes of equal infamy, are openly practiced and avowed. Murder stalks abroad.—Treason and sedition are rife among the ci devant “Latter Day Saints.” The valley of the Salt Lake is a nest in which immorality, ignorance and fanaticism have so long incubated; that treason is already half fledged. This organization of villains and fools is already formidable in number and spirit; our Government must look to it, else much trouble may result.”

We could literally spend this entire episode reading newspaper articles just like this, especially as the timeline progresses closer to the civil war which would occupy people’s minds more than the degraded Mormons in Utah, but you get the idea from this single article. Most media outlets nationwide weren’t friendly to the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley and many other sprouts wholly unaffiliated with Brighamite Mormons were condemned for wearing the same Mormon badge.

With wide public circulation of tabloids just like this, the broader public who’d thought the Mormon problem was dealt with when they were removed from Illinois began to take notice and incite legal actions against the Utah Mormons and their repugnant practices.

One of the primary platforms of the 1856 presidential election was outlawing the twins of barbarism, slavery and polygamy, both legal in the Utah territory. With bipartisan support of that platform, James Buchanan won the presidency in 1856 as a Democrat. Buchanan would spearhead the political and military opposition to Mormon polygamy and slavery, sending American troops to Utah in 1857-58 to instate their own governor over Utah in place of Brigham who’d just finished his term as governor over the territory. Brigham answered Buchanan’s military force by fortifying Parley’s canyon and setting up the Nauvoo Legion in preparation for the impending military conflict. The Mormon troops basically guerilla terrorized the U.S. army and the army eventually gave up and returned to the east. The Mormon war of 1857-58 came to be known as Buchanan’s blunder by the media. However, there were civilian casualties due to the heightened tensions between Brigham’s theocracy and the U.S. government, like the Baker-Fancher party. Thought by Brigham and other Mormon elites to be U.S. Government spies, the Baker-Fancher party became the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September of 1857.

Another person who took notice of the Mormons and all the political upheaval they were causing was Justin Smith Morrill. He was born in Vermont in 1810, not far from the Smith family, where he gained a significant education. After a few successful business ventures, Justin Morrill had enough money to retire from the mercantile industry and began his political career in the Whig party in 1854. He was one of the founders of the Republican party and ran on that platform as the Whig party was dissolving in American politics. At the beginning of the Civil War, Morrill still had his sights on the Mormons and was able to pass the Morrill anti-bigamy act of 1862. The subtitle of the act is as follows:

“An Act to punish and prevent the Practice of Polygamy in the Territories of the United States and other Places, and disapproving and annulling certain Acts of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah.”

One of the primary reasons Brigham had chosen Utah was the fact that it was a territory full of Native Americans that no European settlers had ventured to colonize. Most European colonialists merely passed through Utah on their way to California which gained statehood in 1850, but the badlands of Utah were wholly undesirable to most frontier settlers and the Mormons didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of many US federal laws being simply a territory, and any efforts to enforce laws were met with apathy at best and military resistance at worst. Brigham Young may have had some fantastical idea that if the Mormons established themselves with their own laws in Utah, they would either not be bothered by the U.S. government, or they could start their own Mormon country out there and eventually establish a legally recognized theocracy and not even have to deal with the laws established by the federal U.S. government; Brigham was in it for the long-haul.

Let’s put the Utah sprout of Mormonism on hold for a minute to go back to Illinois and examine how well the dozens of sprouts were growing as Joseph III was maturing to adulthood. When Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844, Joseph III was a mere 11 years old, hardly a practical candidate to take the throne even though he’d been ordained and blessed as the rightful successor by his father likely in January of 1844.

James Strang, who’d taken nearly half of the Mormons under his wing, had begun practicing polygamy in the early 1850s and had left some indications that he believed Joseph III would be the rightful successor to lead the Mormons. This was a belief many of the Strangites held, priming the movement to be reorganized with over ten thousand Mormons vacillating on who to follow. Emma Hale Smith married major Lewis Bidamon and had spent years sorting out the financial affairs of Nauvoo throughout the early to mid-1850s while Joseph III was maturing into early adulthood. Once James Strang was assassinated in 1856, it left thousands of Mormons without a rightful successor as Strang failed to name a rightful heir to the throne he’d constructed. Joseph III was the only logical heir to take the Mormon throne his father had originally established from 1830-44.

Joseph III stepped up to the plate in April of 1860 and finally assumed his status at the head of the Mormon Aristocracy, harvesting dozens of disparate sprouts of Mormonism and annexing them into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the RLDS, not to be confused with the FLDS which didn’t yet exist.

Beginning in January 1860, the soon to be designated RLDS church published the True Latter Day Saints Herald, their own proprietary publication which is still published to this day. A small extract from the foreword discusses the purposes behind publishing the periodical:

“That a Church Paper is very much needed it requires no argument to prove. We want it, that through it, the great work of these Latter Days may be presented to the world of mankind in its true light-that the Saints who are in transgression may be shown their sins, and likewise their duty to God-that those who are deceived by false teachers, and have “given heed to SEDUCING spirits and doctrines of devils,” may be redeemed from their errors, and taught the “'way of life everlasting.””

The editors were three men who were considered trusted individuals of Joseph Smith’s elite who were viciously opposed to polygamy. The very first article after the foreword of the article dealt with polygamy and reads as such, titled “Polygamy contrary to the revelations of God”:

“A MORE delusive idea never entered into the heart of man than the belief that polygamy is one of the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is a favorite doctrine of the Salt Lake Church, because that Church has “turned the grace of our God into lasciviousness,” and plunged themselves into this iniquity in direct opposition to the plain and positive commandments of the lord our God, as they are recorded in the Book of Mormon, in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and in the Old and New Testament.”

Anti-Polygamy was a central focus of the RLDS. It’s worth noting that this publication was created in the wake of the Utah war of 1857-8, when the RLDS factions were doing everything possible to divorce themselves from the Brighamite church so the government and public wouldn’t loop them all together as the same religion, regardless of their shared roots. Polygamy was under harsh scrutiny as Joseph III was coming of age to form the reorganization as their new prophet and the other factions of Mormonism were sick and tired of being looped in with those fanatics out in Utah. Finally, in May of 1860, the True Latter Day Saints Herald published their announcement of Joseph III’s rising to the mantle of prophet on April 6, 1860, the excitement in their tone is palpable.

“We devote considerable space to the proceedings of this body, believing that they are of great importance to us, even as a nation. There is a great body of these people scattered through the States, who, unwilling to follow the fortunes and doctrines of Brigham Young, have been quietly waiting for the time to come when they could organize under a lineal descendant of Joseph Smith, as their prophet. That time has at length arrived. Joseph Smith, Jr., occupies the position which his father once held. A new era in the history of Mormonism has dawned—an era which we hope will greatly improve the name of this despised people.

Whatever ideas we may entertain in relation to the doctrines of the Mormons, we must look with approbation and satisfaction upon any movement on their part which looks towards a radical reformation in their practices as a people.

For many years past Brigham Young has been looked upon as the embodiment of Mormonism, and those professing to be Mormons have been regarded as no better than he. Henceforth, they, or at least one branch of them, are to be judged by a different standard. The eyes of the world will now be turned upon young Joseph. Hitherto this man has borne a good name.—His talents are of no mean order; and it is earnestly to be hoped that he will use them for good and not a bad purpose.”

Begin Joseph III’s inauguration speech:

“It is claimed that the great body of the Mormon people are scattered through the several States, and that a prophet, by lineage, will call together the scattered fragments and unite them into a grand whole.”

“I would say to you, brethren, (as I hope you may be and in faith I trust you are,) as a people that God has promised his blessings upon, I came not here of myself, but by the influence of the Spirit. For some time past I have received manifestations pointing to the position which I am about to assume.

I wish to say that I have come up here not to be dictated by any men or set of men. I have come in obedience to a power not my own, and shall be dictated by the power that sent me.

God works by means best known to himself, and I feel that for some time past He has been pointing out a work for me to do…

I have endeavored as far as possible, to keep myself unbiased. I have never conversed with J. J. Strang, for in those days I was but a boy, and in fact am now but a boy. I had not acquired a sufficient knowledge of men to be capable of leading myself, setting aside the leading of others.

There is but one principle taught by the leaders of any faction of this people that I hold in utter abhorrence. That is the principle taught by Brigham Young and those believing in him. I have been told that my father taught such doctrines. I have never believed it and never can believe it. If such things were done, then I believe they never were done by Divine authority. I believe my father was a good man, and a good man never could have promulgated such doctrines…

A gentleman from Utah informs me that a majority of Brigham Young’s people were restive—not satisfied with their condition—but dared say nothing. That those who preached and those who practiced his teachings were, in reality, the old fogies of the institution, the younger taking a different view of matters.”

And thus, the divine Smith lineage was once again embodied in the son of Joseph the prophet, Joseph III, and he was emplaced upon the vacant Mormon throne his father had left behind. The RLDS church was officially declared and lead by Joseph III from this time forward, in fierce opposition to the Utah Brighamite Mormonism. As stated by Joseph III himself, he couldn’t believe, nor never could, that his father practiced polygamy or promulgated the doctrine thereof. Joseph III subsequently went on multiple mission trips to the western Mormons. He did this in a bid to gain followers who wanted to be led by the familial lineage of Joseph or who were dissatisfied with Brigham’s rule for whatever reasons. Joseph was successful in garnering some followers from these trips, but what he gained, of much greater value, was knowledge.

During most of these trips, Joseph was attempting to get to the bottom of his father’s polygamy. In multiple interviews and letter exchanges with prominent people in Joseph Smith’s life, Joseph III came to understand the overwhelming evidence of his father’s practice of polygamy. This truly is incredible to yours truly. Joseph III had lived in the Nauvoo mansion with his mother and several of Joseph’s plural wives during his childhood, and even he wasn’t aware that these women were sister-wives to his mother, Emma. If we hold any skepticism about how Joseph Smith was able to conceal his polygamy from so many people for so many years, whatever techniques he employed must have been incredibly effective because even his own son was unaware polygamy was being practiced by his own father in his own home. Joseph Smith was surprisingly effective at living 2 completely different lives.

Mormon historian Roger D. Launius does a great job dealing with Joseph III in his article titled “Methods and Motives: Joseph Smith III’s opposition to polygamy, 1860-90”. Here’s a few extracts discussing Joseph III’s war on facts when it came to his father’s polygamy:

“When Joseph Smith III preached his first sermon as leader of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Amboy, Illinois, on 6 April 1860, he expressed his unqualified aversion to the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage:…

No issue infuriated or drew his attention as did plural marriage—and especially charges of his father’s role in its origination. Indeed, opposition to the practice became something of a cause celebre for Smith and, by extension, for the Reorganized Church during the nineteenth century. Recent historical investigation has demonstrated that, by the last decade of the century, the Reorganized Church as an institution had rejected the previously well-accepted idea that Joseph Smith, Jr., had begun the practice. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, numerous historians, among them Reorganized Church historian Richard P. Howard, probed deeper into the origins of plural marriage, demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt the Mormon prophet’s central role in developing the doctrine during the Nauvoo experience and offering frameworks for understanding it…

These compelling historical arguments raise a central question: How could Joseph Smith III flatly deny his father’s role in beginning Mormon polygamy while confronted with substantial evidence to the contrary? Additionally, what role did Smith play in the antipolygamy crusade of the latter nineteenth century? These questions inform the analysis presented in this essay.

Essentially, Joseph Smith III approached his father’s involvement in plural marriage from an already fixed viewpoint. His admission that he could never believe his father might have been involved in polygamy seems to have guaranteed his perspective in spite of countervailing evidence. Smith subscribed to a postulate as immovable as a geometric theorem: (1) Joseph Smith, Jr., had been a good man. (2) Good men do not practice polygamy. (3) Therefore, Joseph Smith, Jr., could not have been involved in Mormon plural marriage. All his actions and thought processes concerning the practice rested upon this central postulate.”

The cognitive dissonance in Joseph III’s writings is painful. His crusade to prove Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy came into conflict with the facts surrounding his father. Joseph III spoke with a number of Joseph’s widows and closest acolytes who all affirmed that Joseph did, indeed, practice polygamy, but Joseph III wanted to exonerate his father’s name and believe what his mother claimed concerning this practice he considered repugnant and immoral. His writings from the late 1800s show he was never able to reconcile the cognitive dissonance, instead compartmentalizing the issue. From later in Launius’ article on Joseph III:

“On 5 March 1886, he [Joseph III] wrote to Zenos H. Gurley, Jr., an apostle who was a gadfly to Smith on the question of polygamy’s origins as well as other issues, “You know that while I believe father was not the author of Utah polygamy I have not and am not now making the battle against the Utah church on that ground but upon the ground that plural marriage is not of God no matter whoever the revelation, so called, came through or who taught or practiced it”. Smith also suggested that his father had not been perfect and that if it turned out he had been responsible for polygamy’s establishment, he would be punished. He told a J. J. Barbour of Dart Town, Georgia, on 15 May 1878, “While I fully believe that Joseph did not receive the revelation referred to, yet, if he did, it is so directly opposed to the laws already received, that I must [admit] it to have been either of man or of the Devil.”

Joseph III’s opposition to Joseph Smith’s polygamy would be enshrined in RLDS scholarship and historical studies for nearly 100 years before being acknowledged by some RLDS historians. Polygamy deniers only occupy a very small fringe group of Mormon historians, most of whom aren’t taken very seriously among the mainstream Mormon historians.

Joseph III would continue to fight against polygamy, falling largely in line with the U.S. government who continued to apply legal restrictions against Utah polygamy through the remainder of the 1800s. The Morrill anti-bigamy act had been put into place in 1862, lobbied by Justin Morrill and signed into law by Abraham Lincoln while the civil war raged in its infancy.

With the Morrill anti-bigamy act signed into law, a force came from within the Utah territory in the form of a sprout run by a man named William S. Godbe. In the very late 1860s Godbe was opposed to the incredible amount of control Brigham had over the Utah territory and he became increasingly opposed to polygamy. He voiced his criticisms of Brigham Young in the Utah Magazine which would eventually become the Salt Lake Tribune, and was subsequently excommunicated from the Brighamite LDS church in 1869. Here we see another small sprout crop up from the fertile Mormon soil, called the Godbeites. Godbe, and the women who influenced him, came up with an ingenious solution to the plight of women living under the patriarchal grip of polygamy; they finally had a solution to end the oppressive patriarchy in Utah, they decided to give women the right to vote. The reason I focus on William Godbe in this little bit, as opposed to the women who lobbied with him, is because the government was exclusively run and moved by men. Women who wanted their voice to be heard in the realm of politics could merely exert their desires on the men who were in office, but they didn’t actually have their own voice. We’ll be focusing on the prominent women involved in politics using men as proxies as our historical timeline progresses.

In 1870, Utah women were given the right to vote with the hopes they would vote to outlaw polygamy. When the tally was taken, they overwhelmingly voted to retain the right to continue practicing polygamy, even though it violated the Morrill anti-bigamy act passed 8 years prior. Women’s right to vote was eventually revoked by congress in 1887 when they realized the Mormon women wouldn’t vote in favor of abolishing polygamy. Trying to unpack why the women voted to keep polygamy is far too complex an exercise for us to engage with today.

It became clear that giving women the right to vote wouldn’t remove polygamy so the government went back to the drawing board. A law like the Morrill anti-bigamy act on the books is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if it can’t be enforced upon the people the law attempts to control, which was the Morrill act’s greatest flaw. Utah had been established as a theocracy by Brigham Young and he didn’t plan on ceding his stranglehold anytime soon. Every government office from the top down was run by Mormons and they all looked to Brigham for guidance or permission. Nothing happened in Utah without Brigham’s knowledge or consent. The Morrill anti-bigamy act specifically targeted the Mormons in Utah, but the government authorities there refused to enforce the law because they were all Mormons. A subsequent act was necessary to be able to enforce Morrill’s anti-bigamy act.

Another occurrence which happened in the meantime merely added fuel to the U.S. government’s fire, The Mountain Meadows Massacre. It happened back in 1857, but still nobody had been punished for the deaths of 120 men, women, and children. The U.S. government had been a bit preoccupied since the massacre with the civil war and reconstruction afterward so it took a bit of time for them to react properly while at the same time they were trying to figure out how to enforce anti-polygamy laws in the Utah theocracy. The government wanted Utah to be accountable for their actions. Finally, a Congressman from Vermont named Luke P. Poland took a stand and proposed a bill known as the 1874 Poland Act.

From an article on famous-trials.com about the Poland Act of 1874

“Each Utah county had a probate court presided over by an elected judge. No federal circuit court was ever established in Utah or with jurisdiction over Utah. Many litigants, especially Mormons, took their cases to the probate court rather than before the federally appointed judge of the district court. The effect was to displace the federally appointed courts with a system of local control. Congress reacted by placing the judiciary firmly under federal control. The Poland Act of 1874 (18 Stat. 253) restricted the probate courts to matters of estates and guardianship, removing all civil, chancery, and criminal jurisdiction. It gave the district courts exclusive jurisdiction for all suits over $300, and it abolished the local offices of the territorial marshal and territorial attorney.”

That last line is most important when it came to enforcing laws in Utah. It abolished local offices of territorial marshal and territorial attorney. Those were offices held by people under Brigham’s watch, and they wouldn’t do anything to offend the prophet and king of Utah. This removed executive and enforcement power from Utah’s jurisdiction and made it a territory enforced by U.S. government marshal and attorney. From the same article:

“Prosecution for the murders at Mountain Meadows became possible only when, in 1874, Congress passed the Poland Act. The Act sought to eliminate the nearly total control the Mormon Church had over Utah's justice system. The Poland Act redefined the jurisdiction of Utah courts, restricting the formerly powerful probate courts, which had taken no action concerning the 1857 massacre, to their traditional jurisdiction. The Act also eliminated the territorial marshal and attorney, giving their duties to a U. S. marshal and U. S. attorney. Finally, the Act opened up Utah juries to non-Mormons.
The first grand jury called under the new law, in September 1874, indicted Lee, Dame, Haight, Higbee, Klingensmith, Stewart, and three other men for the deaths of members of the Fancher Party at Mountain Meadows in 1857.”

These 9 men were indicted for the Mountain Meadows Massacre and John D. Lee was summarily executed in 1877 for his involvement, the only person who suffered any legal repercussions for the intentional deaths of 120 people. This Poland act successfully removed prosecutorial discretion from Utah territory and made it an operation of the federal government. Suddenly federal laws were much easier to enforce in the Utah territory. Polygamy was now, not only illegal, but, enforceable by the U.S. government. This drove a number of polygamy practitioners underground or into satellite locations like Canada and Mexico. However, the passage of the Poland act in conjunction with the Morrill anti-bigamy act didn’t suddenly force the Utah territory into a progressive society and immediately remove the practice of polygamy. Polygamy was a divine tenet of Mormonism and people were willing to go to extreme lengths to continue practicing it. Men moved their wives around to different locations and wouldn’t be seen in public with any of their wives. Most of the documentation of these marriages was in church control, it’s not like there were government issued marriage licenses for these polygamist relationships, so even if Heber Kimball was walking the streets with 7 of his wives, the U.S. government didn’t have access to any documentation to prove they were, indeed, his wives. How do you enforce a law when the people who would be prosecuted under it leave no legal paper trail and just disappear underground as soon as you try to enforce it? This was the constant interplay battle between the U.S. government and the Mormon elite throughout the last half of the 1800s. Mormons ran and oversaw everything that happened in the territory and they didn’t appreciate the ever-growing power of the U.S. government absorbing their power.

James A. Garfield was notoriously opposed to polygamy. It was seen as the last surviving relic of the twins of barbarism. In Garfield’s inaugural address delivered 4 March 1881, we find this little gem:

“The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them. It is therefore a reproach to the Government that in the most populous of the Territories the constitutional guaranty is not enjoyed by the people and the authority of Congress is set at naught. The Mormon Church not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning polygamy, but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalities of law.

In my judgment it is the duty of Congress, while respecting to the uttermost the conscientious convictions and religious scruples of every citizen, to prohibit within its jurisdiction all criminal practices, especially of that class which destroy the family relations and endanger social order. Nor can any ecclesiastical organization be safely permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government.”

Garfield wanted to be able to enforce government laws on the Utah territory and was opposed to the practice of polygamy, even though he was a champion of free exercise of religion. Garfield was subsequently assassinated by Charles Guiteau a mere 4 months into his presidency. The widely-accepted justification for the assassination was due to Guiteau’s disappointment that Garfield wouldn’t give him the office of Consulship at Paris, which he thought Garfield owed him due to his lobbying and campaigning efforts. I’ll only add this into the mix for fun, Guiteau was also a member of the free-love Oneida group and wore the nickname of Gitout as he was found to be repulsive by many of the women in the society. I don’t think Garfield’s hard stance against polygamy had anything to do with Guiteau assassinating him, but it is one interesting detail to throw into the mix. Garfield’s VP, Chester A. Arthur, took the office of President after Garfield’s belabored and gruesome death. Arthur wasn’t as hardline against polygamy as his predecessor or his successor, Grover Cleveland, and for a very brief stint the Mormons could rest easy before things became really hard.

However, the ever-growing anti-polygamy movement didn’t need the president in order for it to proliferate. In 1882 another Vermont government official, this time a senator named George F. Edmunds who would eventually deliver the fatal blow to polygamy, was able to pass the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy act of 1882. Where this act differed from the Morrill act of 1862 was three-fold. First, this Edmunds act made it a felony at the federal level to practice polygamy. Second, it included cohabitation as a marker for determining polygamous relationships. Third, no man practicing polygamy could hold any public office. Now, if any man was seen entering a home where women were living who weren’t his wife, not only could they not hold a government job, but they could be swept up in this draconian measure of anti-cohabitation. This forced then prophet, John Taylor, into hiding, as Brigham Young had passed away 5 years earlier in 1877.

The Edmunds act only added more artillery to the arsenal of law enforcement against polygamy, and suddenly Mormon polygamist men were arrested and imprisoned in droves. The arrest of polygamist men had a few devastating impacts, mostly on the families of the people left behind. One man supporting multiple families already stretches resources pretty thin, but take him out of the equation and completely remove those resources, the resulting humanitarian crisis quickly became a PR nightmare for the U.S. government.

The political climate surrounding polygamy and its abolition was in a weird limbo at this point. The 1st amendment was a solid argument Mormons could make as the anti-polygamy laws were directly crafted to infringe on their religious practices that the Government didn’t approve of. The way the government was able to get around this was by making the argument that people could believe in a religion that held polygamy as one of its tenets, but like slavery with the old testament, they couldn’t legally practice the belief without infringing on the rights of other people. The laws were also crafted to punish those practicing polygamy, instead of punishing the religion which taught polygamy. This was a bottom-up approach, but it left a lot of families without a provider, whereas if they were to attack the religion itself with a top-down legal approach to eradicating polygamy, it may mitigate the damage done to already poverty-stricken families in Utah.

In reaction to the public perception of the prosecution of polygamists, Grover Cleveland’s annual address in December 1885 in the first year of his first term as president included a few excerpts about polygamy in Utah. He sought to address the difficulty in prosecuting polygamy when no legal or census records faithfully recorded polygamist marriages, but he also gave a bit of a heart-sell about the damage to the nuclear family that polygamy creates.

“The Utah commissioners express the opinion, based upon such information as they are able to obtain, that but few polygamous marriages have taken place in the Territory during the last year. They further report that while there cannot be found upon the registration lists of voters the name of a man actually guilty of polygamy, and while none of that class are holding office, yet at the last election in the Territory all the officers elected, except in one county, were men who, though not actually living in the practice of polygamy, subscribe to the doctrine of polygamous marriages as a divine revelation and a law unto all higher and more binding upon the conscience than any human law, local or national. Thus is the strange spectacle presented of a community protected by a republican form of government, to which they owe allegiance, sustaining by their suffrages a principle and a belief which set at naught that obligation of absolute obedience to the law of the land which lies at the foundation of republican institutions.

The strength, the perpetuity, and the destiny of the nation rest upon our homes, established by the law of God, guarded by parental care, regulated by parental authority, and sanctified by parental love.

These are not the homes of polygamy.
The mothers of our land, who rule the nation as they mold the characters and guide the actions of their sons, live according to God' s holy ordinances, and each, secure and happy in the exclusive love of the father of her children, sheds the warm light of true womanhood, unperverted and unpolluted, upon all within her pure and wholesome family circle.

These are not the cheerless, crushed, and unwomanly mothers of polygamy.
The fathers of our families are the best citizens of the Republic. Wife and children are the sources of patriotism, and conjugal and parental affection beget devotion to the country. The man who, undefiled with plural marriage, is surrounded in his single home with his wife and children has a stake in the country which inspires him with respect for its laws and courage for its defense.

These are not the fathers of polygamous families.
There is no feature of this practice or the system which sanctions it which is not opposed to all that is of value in our institutions.

There should be no relaxation in the firm but just execution of the law now in operation, and I should be glad to approve such further discreet legislation as will rid the country of this blot upon its fair fame.

Since the people upholding polygamy in our Territories are reenforced by immigration from other lands, I recommend that a law be passed to prevent the importation of Mormons into the country.”

With Grover Cleveland so harshly against polygamy, new legislation could be approved which finally attacked polygamy from the top down, instead of just punishing those who practice. George Edmunds took this new possible approach into consideration to try and plug the holes left by his 1882 Edmunds anti-polygamy act. Edmunds and a Virginia congressman named John Randolph Tucker teamed up to write the Edmunds-Tucker act of 1887 which directly targeted the Mormon religion and those who practiced polygamy at a systematic level and imposed the annexation of any church property over $50,000 to be absorbed as property of the government until the Mormons complied. It also disincorporated the Mormon church as an entity and defunded the perpetual immigration fund. The Edmunds-Tucker act of 1887 hit the Mormon church where it hurt. The passage of this law coincided with the death of the third prophet, John Taylor. Taylor had fallen ill to congestive heart failure and was unable to execute his duties as prophet. The duties of prophet fell to the Quorum of the Twelve with Wilford Woodruff as president until 1889 when he was finally called and sustained as the president of the church.

This was a trying time for Mormons in Utah. Wilford Woodruff was particularly millennialist in his sermons, frequently preaching that the end is nigh at hand. His apocalyptic revelations waxed intensity as he progressed into his later life. Many Mormons saw the government’s hard stance against polygamy as the final sign that the end times were actively happening. This lapse of two years from 87-89 when Woodruff took the mantle as prophet may be explained by the Mormons not concerning themselves with the government because they knew Jesus was on his way any time now and he would rule over the new Jerusalem the Mormons had built in Utah, burning away all the sinners from the world. The Edmunds-Tucker act would put the pressure on the Mormons to snap them into reality and force Wilford Woodruff’s hand as acting president of the church.

“The act disincorporated both the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund on the grounds that they fostered polygamy. The act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine of from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years. It dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over a limit of $50,000. The act was enforced by the U.S. Marshal and a host of deputies.

The act:

  • Disincorporated the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, with assets to be used for public schools in the Territory.[6]

  • Required an anti-polygamy oath for prospective voters, jurors and public officials.

  • Annulled territorial laws allowing illegitimate children to inherit.

  • Required civil marriage licenses (to aid in the prosecution of polygamy).

  • Abrogated the common law spousal privilege for polygamists, thus requiring wives to testify against their husbands.[7]

  • Disenfranchised women (who had been enfranchised by the Territorial legislature in 1870).[8]

  • Replaced local judges (including the previously powerful Probate Court judges) with federally appointed judges.

  • Abolished the office of Territorial superintendent of district schools, granting the supreme court of the Territory of Utah the right to appoint a commissioner of schools. Also called for the prohibition of the use of sectarian books and for the collection of statistics of the number of so-called gentiles and Mormons attending and teaching in the schools.”

The passage of the Edmunds-Tucker anti-polygamy act was challenged by the church and in 1890 a supreme court ruling titled “Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States” held that the property seizures were lawful and not an infringement on the free exercise of religion.

With no options left and Jesus not miraculously appearing to defend polygamy, Wilford Woodruff, 1.5 years into his presidency, utterly defeated by the puritanical U.S. Government, approached the October 1890 conference with the infamous manifesto in hand.

(Crowd sound fx and echo voice)

“To Whom It May Concern:

Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes, from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published, to the effect that the Utah Commission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, allege that plural marriages have been contracted in Utah since last June or during the past year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy—

I, therefore, as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.

One case has been reported, in which the parties allege that the marriage was performed in the Endowment House, in Salt Lake City, in the Spring of 1889, but I have not been able to learn who performed the ceremony; whatever was done in this matter was without my knowledge. In consequence of this alleged occurrence the Endowment House was, by my instructions, taken down without delay.

Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.

There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.

Wilford Woodruff [signed]

President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

And that’s where we’ll leave things until next week. Of all the various iterations of Mormonism we’ve examined today, they all sprouted from this central point of fertile religious soil in Nauvoo and they all have the same roots. Some of these sprouts hated polygamy and denied the founding prophet ever practiced it, others held to the practice as the only way to achieve eternal salvation.

One thing I’ve personally gained from studying this so much the past month or so is a major appreciation and sense of empathy for what these people went through. Each group of Mormons were only doing what they viewed as right in God’s eyes, and that required them to live by the words of mere men who were invested mostly in their own self interests. The government knew that polygamy was illegal and their jurisdiction covered the Utah territory, but they were only trying to perpetuate the status quo of puritanical monogamy, and there’s nothing saying that’s the perfect form of marriage or family structure. People went into hiding for years to protect what they considered moral. People went to prison for following god’s will. Mormons killed and died for polygamy. The government killed and sustained losses to limit polygamy. The government directly violated the free exercise of religion to halt polygamy and it wouldn’t be until 1978 that the Edmunds-Tucker act was repealed. The government annexed Mormon property to stop polygamy. The government forced already impoverished people into ever-deeper cycles of poverty amidst their war on polygamy.

This isn’t a simple comic book story with clear lines of good guys and bad guys. These were real people. These people were trying to do what they thought was right. The people at the highest levels in government and the Mormon church suffered the least, those who suffered the most were the small families with very little power in the church to change their status, and they were arrested or exiled from Utah to seek a land of refuge which wouldn’t infringe on their religious freedom. Nobody was right, and everybody was just a little bit wrong in different ways.

Remember this whenever considering any issue. People think they’re on the right side, everybody is the protagonist of their own story, and everybody’s religion is the one true religion.


Mark and Dan 11th

Next week we’ll focus on the real people who suffered through polygamy, the women. I’m hoping to bring on an expert guest to help us navigate 20th century polygamy and give us some insight into the women’s plight surrounding the practice of polygamy.

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